Top Girls

Written by Caryl Churchill

Thurs 22nd February - Sat 24th February & Tues 27th February - Sat 2nd March 1996

Directed by John Batstone

A sceptical and comical look at the role of women in contemporary society from one of Britain's greatest theatrical innovators. The action swings from a smart London Women's Employment Agency to a cottage in rural East Anglia, as it considers the sacrifices and compromises women have to make in order to carve out a place for themselves.

Overlapping dialogue, inventive doubling of characters and the most unusual dinner party you'll ever see combine to create a truly Churchillian evening.

AuthorCaryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill (b 1938)

Caryl Churchill was born in London and grew up in the Lake District and in Montreal. She was educated at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she read English. 'Downstairs', her first play, was written while she was still at university. It was first staged in 1958 and won an award at the Sunday Times National Union of Students Drama Festival. She wrote a number of plays for BBC radio and 'The Judge's Wife' was televised by the BBC in 1972. 'Owners', her first professional stage production, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in the same year.

Churchill was Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court between 1974 and 1975 and spent much of the 70s and 80s working with the theatre groups Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment. Her work during this period includes Cloud Nine. She has won many writing awards during her career including an Olivier Award, several Susan Smith Blackburn Prizes, and multiple Obie and Evening Standard Awards.

PlayTop Girls

Top Girls focuses on the women who get what the feminists say they want: liberation from domesticity and child-bearing, the chance for success in the male enclave, the world of work. The play jettisons the demands of strict naturalism. In a lively opening scene, Marlene, recently promoted managing director of Top Girls Employment Agency, throws a party to celebrate.

She has invited a witty quintet of historical and fictional women achievers:

They chatter on about their lives, their dialogue overlapping, their words often indecipherable since they rarely listen to each other. Marlene toasts them.

After the opening scene, the action shifts to Marlene's Top Girls Employment Agency where the anachronistic ladies are now transformed into interviewers and interviewees. As staff, they counsel female clients to be tough, ruthless and competitively aggressive like the men whose success they want to emulate. Marlene is contemptuous of those who have not made it by male success standards, but what has she sacrificed, what compromises with herself has she made?

In the final scene, she visits Joyce, her unliberated sister. After tears and the exchange of confidences, the dialogue, as in the first scene begins to overlap, each sister intent on making her own case. Marlene admires Thatcher, whom Joyce calls Hitlerina. She hates the working class, the way they talk, their "beer guts and football vomit and saucy tits". Joyce spits when she sees a Rolls Royce and "hates the cows (she) works for". Suddenly the lively humour of the play's opening tour de force seems anachronistic. Suddenly, the bright gabbiness of those ladies from history and legend, and Marlene's stylish success seem insubstantial cover for desperately sad lives. All the women in the play are trapped and forlorn. The ones who stay on the farm are made callous by their emotional and economic deprivations. The city ladies fare no better, given the price - childlessness and loneliness - that success exacts.

The Bench Production

Top Girls poster image

This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.


MarleneHelena Whalley
Isabella Bird/LouiseRita de Bunsen
Lady Nijo/NellJuno Hollyhock
Dull Gret/Joyce/Daphne Mossop
Pope Joan/WinJane Blunden
Griselda/Mrs KiddBenita Oakley
Waitress/AngieCathy Jones
Kit/ShonaJenny Evans
JeannieGemma Harding


Director John Batstone
Stage Manager Neil Pugmire
Assistant Stage Manager Ruth Prior, Sue Spencer
Gemma Harding, Harriet Thomas
Lighting and Sound Andrew Caple
Production co-ordinator John O'Hanlon
Costumes Rita de Bunsen
Set Design and Painting George Hatton
Set Construction Tim Taylor

Director's Notes

There are sixteen characters in this play. When it was first performed in 1982 it had a cast of seven. We have a cast of nine, still preserving the convention of "doubling". Caryl Churchill has said she did not write it originally with the intention of doubling, but when it came to doing it (at the Royal Court) "it did seem to make a lot of sense to do it that way". It provides the stimulus, for actors and audience alike, of playing off the past against the present, seeing one character type against another, both for comparison and contrast. As Bill Naismith has written: "Top Girls questions the roles that have been imposed on women, past and present. The doubling of parts by an actor can positively undermine the fixedness of roles."

John Batstone


The NewsMark Ludmon

Counting the cost of feminine success

Most of the women in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls have achieved the feminist ideal - succeeding in a man's world. But the play successfully uses comedy, drama and surrealism to question whether they have made too many sacrifices to reach the top.

It focuses on Marlene, a typical woman of the eighties, who idolises Thatcher and would stick her stilettos in any man to be a success. Realism is thrown out the window in the opening scene where she entertains five high achieving women plucked from history and fiction. Her guests range from Pope Joan, who posed as a man to get the top Vatican job, to a Japanese concubine - all successful but lonely figures. But the play develops into bleak reality ending with a moving kitchen sink drama.

It is the first all-female production for Bench Theatre [Actually, this honour was taken by Time and Tide in 1987 - Ed] and a fine ensemble performance from the cast, most of whom play two characters. Helena Whalley slips naturally into the role of the cocksure Marlene, while Cathy Jones ably slices a decade or so off her age to give a strong performance as the troubled 16-year-old Angie.

The News, 24th February 1996

Production Photographs